Oct 12, 2000

"...Luzhin's prototype was Alekhine..."
L. Delitsin

Is this true?



Nabokov's "warmest", according to the author himself, novel is apparently the most significant writing about chess in world literature which undoubtedly ennobles the kings game despite the evident inferiority, sickliness and narrow-mindedness of its hero. Such is the fascination of Nabokov's wonderful, tuneful prose that the single fact that the leading role was given to a chess player is beneficent and honorary for the art of chess, even though he is not a very attractive person.

Probably it was Nabokov's eminence, his champion's title in literature that made critics connect the heading of the novel with the well known Alekhine's Defence which was a brilliant revelation of the great maestro, and many of them were even convinced that Nabokov's novel was about the World Champion.

At the same time, for Alekhine such an assumption would be simply insulting. The first Russian World Champion was known as a person with a brilliant and versatile talent. A Doctor of "both Laws", he spoke basic European languages perfectly and was by right acknowledged as one of the best chess writers. It's curious that Russian readers know the books of their great country-fellow in translations because Alekhine always wrote in the languages of his editors. There were times when the renowned maestro performed successfully both as a specialist in crime detection and as a diplomat. Being endowed with an outstanding appearance, Alekhine was an impeccable man of fashion, he enjoyed success with the fair sex and never missed the little pleasures of life.

Let's read what Capablanca wrote:

"A Slav, over six feet tall, weighing some 200 English pounds, fair-haired and blue-eyed, Alekhine's appearance is striking when he enters the playing hall. He speaks fluently six languages, he has the degree of a Doctor of Law, and his general education is much higher than that of an average man."

Bogatyrchuk1 recalls that when Russian participants of the tournament in Mannheim were interned in 1914 after the beginning of WW1 the handsome and robust Alekhin made love to the daughter of their jailer which considerably relieved the Russian chess players. Can you ever imagine Luzhin in such a situation?

Nabokov himself never wrote that Alekhine was the prototype of Luzhin. So why has the critics jury determined it this way? A whole constellation of chess players, born in the Russian Empire, shone in the Europe in the twenties: Bogoliubov, Janowski, Rubinstein, Tartakover, Bernstein. Probably it was only the semi-noble origin that allowed the association of Alekhine's name with Luzhin's image.

As for the World Champion, he once called Tartakover to be Luzhin's prototype. Of course it was a joke: a famous wit who also was a Doctor of both Laws and whose writings were nearly the best in the chess periodicals of that time, Saveli Grigorievich Tartakover could have been Luzhin's prototype just as probably as Alekhine.

No doubt that Luzhin was an invented person, who apparently had the features of different people. By the way, is it at all possible that a person like Luzhin or Zweig's Tschentowitsch would have become an outstanding chess player? The question is not new; it has been asked since the appearance of these heroes in world literature. Knowing a great deal about the subject and being personally acquainted with several big grandmasters, the author of these lines tries to give a definite answer: an unhealthy, defective person with a single hypertrophied talent can become a good professional chess player. Still he will never be a World Champion or a Challenger as one has to have a strong personality, to be a real sportsman to achieve this.

In general, Nabokov describes the air of chess contests very well, unlike some of the famous writers who were intolerably ignorant of chess (both Leonov and Kuprin should not have written about chess). The great writer knew about chess: he played at the rating of a first class player, was a fervent problemist, he even published a collection of his own problems. His descriptions of Luzhin's duels with Turatti are very good, and as for the episode with Valentinov's problem, we can feel in it not just a big writer, but an expert in chess composition too.

Let's read it once again:

"Luzhin lifted his eyelids cautiously. He took the sheet mechanically. A cutting from a chess magazine. Mate in three. A composition by Dr. Valentinov. The problem was cold and artful, and, knowing Valentinov, Luzhin revealed the key in a single moment. As if with his own eyes he saw in this tricky chess hocus-pocus all the craftiness of its author"

In my opinion this is irreproachable. I mean the chess part only. On the whole, I believe, "Luzhin's Defence" is an excellent book, and I am just a grain of sand in the shoreless ocean of its admirers.

From chess fiction we can recommend the novel "The Tempo" by the French author Camill Burnikel which was awarded the Grand Prix of the French Academy in 1977.


1 Fiodor Parfenievich Bogatyrchuk was born on November 14 (according to the Julian calendar) 1892 in Kiev. After school and the faculty of medicine at the St. Vladimir University he was at the front for a short time. As a doctor, he took part in the Civil War against the Bolsheviks. After the Soviet regime was settled in the Ukraine he was a radiologist. In 1940 he defended his thesis for a Doctor's degree.
In 1943 he left Kiev, together with his family, and lived in Germany for some time where he entered the Committee for the Liberation of the Peoples of Russia which was led by general A. Vlasov. In the CLPR he headed the Ukrainian National Council. After the defeat of Germany he moved to Canada and took out the Canadian citizenship. Soon he began to teach at the University of Ottawa. He had remarkable results in chess. In 1927 he became the joint winner of the USSR Championship together with Romanovski. More than once he played in Chess Olympiads for the national team of Canada. After WWII it was prohibited even to mention Bogatyrchuk's name in the Soviet periodicals.

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